It’s said that a bear can smell a wounded animal up to 30 kilometres away. That’s nothing. Their little-known cousin, the Bears NRL Consortium, can sense a rugby league club in distress from a distance of three states.
So it comes as no surprise to hear that the North Sydney Bears are once again on the hunt, this time stalking the injured Gold Coast Titans.
As a foundation club, North Sydney will always hold a special place in rugby league history. But the Bears last fielded a first-grade side in 1999; for almost 20 years they’ve survived as nothing more than a twinkling in Greg Florimo’s eye.
An entire generation of NRL fans have grown up without them, so would there be any fans still out there if the beary tale came true?
In my experience, most definitely yes. A group of mates and I donned retro jerseys for the grand final a few years back. I went with the Bears strip, and from Central to Homebush to Scruffy Murphy’s and beyond, I was lucky if five minutes passed without some bloke thumping me on the back and roaring, “Go the Bears”.
Handshakes were plentiful, names like Seers, Soden, Ikin and Moore were thrown around, and Mario Fenech even signed my jersey. And just to top it off, as we were getting off the train at Olympic Park station, the driver announced, “Your next station is Olympic Park, enjoy the game and go the mighty Bears”.
So yeah, they’re out there, deep in hibernation. But what would it take to draw them out of their cave? Their team won’t return to North Sydney, so would the fans want their beloved franchise packed up and shipped off to the Gold Coast?
This can be a polarising topic. From the perspective of North Sydney fans, how can you expect them to passionately support a team they only see a couple of times a year? A team without a visible presence in their local community?
You can drape the players in red and black, slap a snarling Kodiak on their jersey, and even plaster North Sydney Leagues Club with Jarryd Hayne posters, but it’s just not the same. It would never feel like their team.
And assuming there are any rugby league supporters on the Gold Coast, how would they feel? They’ve already suffered through more rebrandings than Pepsi, so the idea of having yet another team forced upon them would be downright unbearable. They feel no pride in the rich traditions of the famous North Sydney club, and have no sense of nostalgia at the idea of the Bears re-joining the NRL.
To me, relocating this proud foundation club to the Gold Coast (or anywhere else for that matter) is a no-win situation. While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, the North Sydney Bears simply cannot survive outside of their natural habitat.
If and when the NRL greenlights expansion or relocation, let’s give the new city their own team, and let them build their own heritage and tradition.
Home-grown halves: The waiting is the hardest part
You don’t win a Telstra Premiership without quality in the halves. Run your eyes over the list of recent grand final combatants, and in each and every case, the team that hoisted the Provan-Summons Trophy was led around the park by a dominant number 6 or 7.
If you’re in charge of building a football team, your first priority must always be to find a halfback, regardless of the cost. It’s why the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans and Ben Hunt signed contracts paying them over $1 million per season, despite questions surrounding their value.
It’s also why Todd Carney continues to generate interest from NRL clubs, despite a having the longest rap sheet since Julian O’Neill.
Established halves don’t often hit the open market, and when they do, most teams don’t have the salary cap space to accommodate their obscene asking price. The alternative approach is to develop your own playmaker, which is where several clubs find themselves at the moment.
But how long do you wait for potential to transform into production? How much patience do you show a young playmaker before you move on and try again? Is there any way to predict if a playmaker is likely to succeed?
Looking at the current top halves in the game, I’ve done a quick back of the envelope analysis to find out. First a disclaimer: this is a completely subjective evaluation, the sort of crude analysis usually reserved for Berejiklian Government decisions or Australian Test team selections. So all you statisticians out there, pitchforks away, please.
My analysis tells me that success isn’t determined by how many games you play, the strength of your team, or even the ability of your halves partner. It’s all about opportunity; the vast majority of today’s elite halves elevated their game during their first full season starting in the 6 or 7 jumper.
Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston each won the Dally M Halfback of the Year award in their first season as a starting halfback. Mitchell Pearce made the NSW team in his first full season as the Rooster number 7, and James Maloney flourished during his first season running the show at the Warriors.
More recently, we’ve watched Corey Norman take the next step in his career as the Eels primary playmaker, Ash Taylor take ownership of the Titans halfback position in his debut season, and Anthony Milford come within seconds of winning a grand final in his first season in the 6.
Opportunity is the key. So what does this mean for the current crop of young halves? For those entering their first full season starting in the 6 or 7, like Nathan Cleary, Te Marie Martin and Brock Lamb, it means their development this year may be a good indication of their long-term career trajectory.
For others entering their second and third season, such as Mitchell Moses, Luke Brooks and Moses Mbye, perhaps it means that there simply isn’t more than meets the eye. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect these talented youngsters to transform into anything more than solid footballers, and perhaps they might not be the long-term halves solution their respective teams are hoping for.
I’m sure there are plenty of holes in my theory and countless examples of halves who slowly developed their game over the course of their career. But as a Newcastle supporter, a club deeply invested in junior development, I’m always looking for a reason to think that we’ve invested in the right players.
Fifth tackle option
Here are five quick thoughts on the action from Round 3:
1. Well, it was fun while it lasted. After making promises about cracking down on deliberate tactics to slow down the speed of the ruck, the referees reverted back to the old “final warning” approach. Fair dinkum, I think Brisbane received more “final warnings” during the last 20 minutes of their loss to the Storm than my two-year-old cops at bathtime each night.
2. However, I can understand the reluctance of referees to use the sin bin more frequently. Newcastle scored ten points while George Burgess was off the field, so reducing a team to 12 men can have a significant impact on a game. With the contest still in the balance, like it was in Melbourne on Thursday night, sending a player to the sin bin may very well determine the outcome of a match.
3. Last three games: Canberra Raiders 158 – Wests Tigers 22.
4. Who taught Kane Elgey to tackle? Mitchell Moses? The Titans halfback has missed 17 tackles in only three games, putting him on track to miss 136 for the year. He’ll certainly give James Maloney a nudge as the game’s biggest turnstile in 2017.
5. An incident in the Titans versus Eels game caught my eye. Midway through the second half, Ryan James was pushed in the back, causing him to slump to the turf. The incident looked innocuous enough, and I thought James was simply pushing for a penalty. So I was shocked when he left the field shortly after via the concussion protocol, which isn’t counted towards a team’s interchange limit.
James returned to the field after a brief period in the sheds and finished the game. I’m not questioning the integrity of James or the Titans’ medical staff, but it was certainly convenient.
Follow Tom on Twitter @_TomRock_